- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) - Two decades after a convicted sex offender lured a 7-year-old named Megan into his house with the promise of seeing a new puppy, then killed her, the law that bears her name remains broadly popular, but gets mixed reviews.

Megan’s Law was proposed within days of the murder of Megan Kanka and signed into law on Oct. 31, 1994, just three months after the girl was raped and strangled by the man who lived in the house across the street from her home in Mercer County.

Prosecutors and victims’ activists praise it. Defense lawyers and civil rights activists say it labels people as dangerous who pose little danger to society and was enacted in a wave of public outrage. There is scant evidence, they say, that it has done any good.

Still, the law, and others like it, have been enacted by all 50 states and the federal government, largely as a result of what happened in a quiet New Jersey neighborhood.

The last time anyone saw Megan Kanka alive was late in the day on July 29, 1994. She was talking to a man who was washing his car in the driveway across the street. The next day, following a frantic search, her body was found in a park about three miles away.

Almost immediately, Jesse K. Timmendequas, 33, was arrested and confessed. Only then did Megan’s family and neighbors learn that the man who lived across the street was a convicted sex offender. And two men who lived in the house with him also had been convicted of sex crimes against children.

The reaction was swift and forceful. In Hamilton Township, Megan’s hometown, a crowd of thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil to show support for a new law that would require neighborhood notification when a sex offender moves into an area.

“Light your candles on your porches and think of my little girl,” Megan’s tearful mother, Maureen, said. “Be irate. Write your senators, your representatives, the president. Let them know how angry you are.” Two days later, Megan was buried.

Some lawyers and civil rights activists warned of a lynch mob mentality and said such laws would amount to hanging scarlet letters around the necks of ex-offenders.

But the laws have survived a series of court challenges over the years, and have been expanded to include more offenders.

The Record (https://bit.ly/10HSnDk) reports that New Jersey now has more than 15,000 registered sex offenders. About 4,085 of them - including 140 in Bergen County and 383 in Passaic County - have been categorized as moderate to high-risk offenders, and are listed on a state police website.

“We think it has been successful in many ways,” said Laura Ahern, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center. “It helps law enforcement, and parents can use it to prevent their child from having a relationship with someone who could victimize them.”

Ray Flood, a Hackensack defense attorney, said the law is appropriate for violent and repetitive sex offenders, “but there are so many defendants who will never re-offend and never need the Megan’s Law stigma. Perhaps on the 20th anniversary of the law, there should be a study to provide more flexibility.”

Megan’s Law requires that convicted sex offenders register with authorities, and that communities be notified when a sex offender moves into the neighborhood. New Jersey’s online registry provides the sex offenders’ names, addresses and photographs along with other identifying information.

It also provides information about the offender’s conviction and a description of the offense, such as, “Subject sexually assaulted a juvenile female,” or “Subject sexually assaulted several boys. Boys ranged in age from 8 years through 15 years.”

Information about sex offenders who are considered a lower risk is available only to law enforcement. Some community organizations - like schools - are also notified.

Soon after it was enacted, Megan’s Law faced a series of legal challenges from public defenders, civil liberties advocates and others who questioned its constitutionality. Federal and state courts have been mostly consistent in rejecting the arguments, ruling that public safety concerns outweigh the privacy or equal-protection claims of sex offenders.

But a sharp debate continues about whether the law accomplishes its goal: notifying the public about sex offenders in their neighborhoods so that people can take precautions, and reducing the likelihood that sex offenders will re-offend.

A 2008 study funded by the U.S. Justice Department concluded that Megan’s Law had no effect on preventing first-time sex offenses or on re-offending. “Despite widespread community support for these laws, there is virtually no evidence to their effectiveness,” the authors wrote.

Lisa Squitieri, who heads the sex crimes unit at the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, said Megan’s Law “has been effective for what it was intended to be. It puts the sex offenders on notice and notifies the public. It does that job.”

Ahern, of Parents for Megan’s Law, said it should be expanded to require that information on all registered sex offenders, not just those considered high risk, be available on the Internet.

Sex offenders are assigned to one of three tiers, based on their risk of re-offending. The risk assessment is done by a Superior Court judge. Those put in the top two tiers are placed on the Internet registry.

“Government should not be making a determination of risk,” Ahern said. “Just give the information to the community, and individuals can make their own determination.”

State Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, is a co-sponsor of a bill that would do just that. Introduced in March, the bill has been referred to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.

“It would do away with the risk-based system,” she said. “It’s effective and fiscally prudent.” If the bill becomes law, she said, the list of offenders on the New Jersey Internet registry would rise from about 4,000 to over 15,000.

Joseph Del Russo, a retired Passaic County sex-crimes prosecutor, said the bill would modernize Megan’s Law and make the information more accessible in an age where people increasingly get their information from the Internet. But he predicted that if the measure becomes law, it will face constitutional challenges.

Megan’s Law, he said, should not be seen as a stand-alone mechanism to deter recidivism. It should be used as part of a comprehensive approach that includes strict probation for sex offenders. Some sex offenders who are on probation are even required to undergo polygraph tests and wear ankle bracelets to monitor their movement, he said.

Opposition comes from many quarters, including Fletcher Duddy, director of the special hearings unit at the state’s Office of the Public Defender, who thinks it would be a mistake to list all sex offenders on the Internet.

“It dilutes the system when you put thousands and thousands of people on the list,” he said. “The public would have no way of determining who poses a serious risk and who doesn’t.”

Overall, Megan’s Law has been counter-productive and should be scrapped, he said.

“The intent of Megan’s Law is good and laudable,” Duddy said. “Reducing sexual-offense recidivism is a noble goal. But in reality, the law doesn’t do that. Making sex offenders pariahs in modern-day society, making it impossible for them to find work or a place to live, actually increases their likelihood of recidivism.”

Many defendants who pose no risk to the community end up being registered as sex offenders, he said. The most common types are those who are convicted of statutory rape, in which an otherwise consensual relationship is defined by law as rape because the victim is under the age of 16, and the offender is at least four years older.

“You have someone who is 19 or 20, having a relationship with someone who is 15,” he said. “The person frankly didn’t even know he was doing something wrong, and even their families knew about it. That is a very, very common fact pattern.”

The older partner in such relationships would then be required to register under Megan’s Law, although he or she has no tendency to sexually victimize others, he said. “Now he is classified as a predator and lumped together with dangerous pedophiles.”

Joseph Rem, a Hackensack defense attorney, agreed.

“I think it is often applied to people who do not represent any threat to the community, and that is unfortunate,” he said. “To those who are listed on the Internet, Megan’s Law is the 21st-century scarlet letter.”

Timmendequas, now 53, was convicted of Megan Kanka’s murder and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life without parole when New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. He remains behind bars in a maximum security prison in Trenton.

Maureen and Richard Kanka have spent the 20 years since their daughter’s death pushing for laws to keep children safe from sexual predators. They still live in the house in Mercer County. Across the street is a quiet, verdant park where the house of her killer once stood. It’s called Megan’s Place. The centerpiece is a hopscotch grid.

___

Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com

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